This isn’t a note to take the place of our morning chats.
You know - when Bindi and I are out walking and I tell you about my favorite student or finishing up my application for grad school or how I think it’s time to start running again. When I wonder aloud what you think about getting the monk straps re-soled for the fourth(!) time, even though Bindi’s pretty much chewed them into irrelevance, but how I can’t stand the thought of throwing them away because I remember the day you and mom insisted I buy them so vividly. (Sometimes stuff isn’t just stuff.)
I love those talks. They’re my joy. Obviously.
But there never seems like enough time to talk about the big stuff on these walks.
The things we’d sit in the car pulling apart long after we got back from the doctor’s office, eating nuggets and french fries and Frosty and hoping nobody would walk by and ask us what we were doing.
You once called it “the laden stuff.” Things like being fearless when we pray. Like having the courage to call things by their proper and scary names. Like daring to believe in something. Or daring to want to believe in something at all (which somehow seems even more courageous than simply believing these days.)
The most important things. Like giving grace freely to those who are reluctant to accept it, and especially to those unwilling to offer it to us - because that’s what grace is, after all. Unmerited favor. Unearned kindness.
Like giving grace to ourselves, and how hard is that? (So. Hard.)
About other truths we both learned in kindergarten, decades and thousands of miles apart. Like not to cut in line and to say thank you often. Even the sacred truths of kindergarten we pulled apart. Nothing was safe.
Remember the times we talked about our empathy spiral? I get stuck on that one often. Never sure how to find my way out.
I miss those conversations, Abi. I miss them so very much. And we’re only a week into this part of our relationship. This part is never going to get easier. Is it?
Can I write you some letters where we talk about those things? No strings attached. You can take forever to respond, or never respond at all. You’re such a part of me, after all, and if I take off the headphones, turn down the white noise of Monday, and listen long enough, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to hear what you’d tell me, whether you respond with a letter or not.
And if I get it wrong, no worries. We’ll just take it up when I get there. Maybe have one of those arguments that we both know the other will come back from. The best arguments.
I’ll know how to find you. Remember when we talked about that?
Let’s start here:
With my two biggest cancer fears. I know you spent a lot of time and energy on these, and I think you’d want to know where I am.
First, your pain. Remember talking about how terrified I was of your pain, and how I’d react to seeing you hurt?
You. The person I love more than my own life, more than a cold beer on a hot August day (duh), more than the sun's arrival over the bay when clouds were just breaking up, more than the mudgy sounds of Bindis paws on fresh snow, more than the cold January air burning my lungs, and more than watching the buffleheads - and trying to guess where they’ll break the surface. More than being surprised at how far they could swim, and how long they’d stay submerged. More than any of it.
How might I react to not knowing how to ease your pain, when a dad’s job - his only job, really - is to protect his children?
Last night I went back and looked at old posts and some of our old text messages and remembered just how much pain you bore, and just how long you bore it. Sometimes you were so capable that it was easy to forget how you hurt, and forget that it started months before we even knew about the cancer.
Months before we knew.
I’m trying to remember the first time you told me your back hurt, and I think it was literally right after Cape Charles - maybe even when you and John were in Charlottesville. Getting ready to go to Barboursville Winery, and you and I talked on the phone. That’s right. Isn’t it?
I hate this, but I won't look away.
I think we know how I reacted to your pain.
Not well when giving you the gentlest possible hug caused an uncomfortable and involuntary flinch that you tried so hard to hide from me. Seeing you in pain, and as much as I possibly could, feeling your pain, took me to a very, very dark place. A darker and emptier place than I could have ever imagined.
Worse, no matter how hard I tried to hide it from you, you saw me there. I never had the courage to ask you how you knew to look for me in the abyss. The answer was even more terrifying than your pain. But you did know to look there, and because you love me, finding me only made you hurt more. So much more, which drove me deeper and deeper into the pit. And so on. And so on.
The empathy spiral.
But dear Abi, as much as your death burned a jagged hole through the middle of my heart, knowing that you’re not having to endure that pain one moment longer might be starting to wear away at the hole’s sharpest edges. Already.
And more than that, maybe your relief is my relief. Your mercy, my mercy. Maybe it’s helping to pull me back from the blank. For the first time in months - maybe even longer - I believe there may be a way out of the pit, and I may be making my way toward it.
This isn’t certain. But it’s possible. There’s hope.
Mercy, but at such a cost.
Then there was the second thing.
My fear that I might not know how to live in a world without you. Might not be able to make sense of the trees anymore or understand how they could possibly thrive in the median of Little Creek Boulevard when you’re not here to see them. Or to tell up from down, wet from dry or dark from light. A world where fathers survive their daughters and god means something completely different than he did where I used to live. And that I’d find myself so disoriented in this chaotic place that my body wouldn’t know how to keep going, and might simply shut itself off, or that my heart forget to beat.
Or forget even how to beat.
Do you remember the first time we talked about this? It was a driveway conversation for sure. I thought I was saying something unique and that this might surprise you. But you were already way ahead of me. Had been worried about this very same thing long before I brought it up to you. Worried for my actual survival.
Will anyone know me this well, again?
No. Anyone will not.
It might be okay.
Because you taught me how to let it come in, and that’s changed everything. Letting it come in might be the one thing that helps us make sense of the senseless. Or if not to understand, then at least to survive the senseless.
I love that letting it come in is one of the core values, but even when we typed those words in February, I hadn't any idea of how powerful and transformative they might be.
Since others might be reading our letters, I suppose we need make it clear where we stole that from. You remember how we both read Tuesdays with Morrie in February (2017!), then shared it with as many people as would accept it? (And I haven’t forgotten about the Read Like a Fish post, or series of posts. Still cooking that one up.)
Morrie didn’t mince words. He said,
“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give our love, and to let it come in."
Not One of the most important things in life.
No. The most important thing in life.
I think the temptation for me, and for so many, is to focus on the first part. On giving love. Giving love. What could be better? We had that one figured out from the beginning.
But over time, I’ve grown convinced the second part might be definitely is harder and even more important. That learning to let love come in matters more than learning to give it out.
Hear me out.
How many times have we talked about how accepting someone’s love actually fills not only your own heart, but theirs, as well. Letting it come in says, “I trust you.” It says, “Your love is precious to me,” and even, “You’re really good at this.” Letting it come in gives them the courage to give and accept more freely. With you. With others. Letting it come in with your arms wide open is a gift in itself, to the giver.
Isn’t that the part you love about Christmas? That rare moment when somebody opens your gift and instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have,” they sit overcome, dumbfounded even, at how thoughtful you were, and how perfect your gift. And after struggling to get their composure, they simply say, “Thank you.”
And you’re the one whose heart is completely filled.
And instead of saying, “It was nothing, really,” you say, “You’re welcome, sweetheart.”
That’s the magic of letting it come in. The most virtuous cycle.
Imagine a place where everyone transcends the lies they’ve been fed for literally, a lifetime. The lie that they’re not enough. The lie that they’re unworthy. The lie that they’re broken and probably beyond repair. The lie that they need saving. That lie that they should treat kindness with suspicion. The lie that people who treat them well must be stupid. Or have an angle.
Imagine a world where people simply accept love, instead. Bathe in it. Drink it in like the finest wine and let it get them a little drunk and restore them, and refill their hearts to overflowing.
Kylie talked about daring to create a world you’d be humbled to leave behind.
This is the world you were creating. I get it now.
There were hundreds of people at your service last Saturday. Too many to fit into the main room. So many that it was almost impossible to walk. Can you imagine me in a tight room with hundreds of people mourning the loss of my beloved had it happened two years ago? Seriously, can you doubt that it would have undone me?
And yet, Saturday was one of the best days of my life. I know how that sounds. But it was.
It was the best because you spent the last twenty-two months twenty-seven years teaching me how to let it come in. Convincing me I was enough. Believing in me. Telling me to trust myself. Telling me to trust the kindness of others.
Teaching me the most important thing I could do Saturday was accept the love of those people, and not tie myself in knots trying to figure out how to awkwardly return it to them. Or to say the right thing. Or to give even a thought to what my appropriate response should look like.
My job was to accept freely what they were giving freely. The long, lingering hugs. The tears from those who’d never even met you but were inspired by your story and just wanted to play a tiny little role in it. To accept their simple words, “I’m so sorry” or whatever words they offered and to believe them genuine and sincere and to hold them close for as long as they or I wanted to be held, and not to worry about the person standing beside us because they didn’t mind waiting.
Then to do again. And again. And again.
And then say, Thank you.
It didn’t stop on Saturday. People have been offering love non-stop. In magical and unexpected ways. Do you remember the math professor I mentioned in August? The one that I was supposed to have coffee with and never did? We had the most amazing email exchange yesterday, mostly because he offered a little love, and maybe even because I took the tiniest little chance on my response to his condolence note. You’d have loved the exchange. Maybe I’ll share it with you sometime.
And this just keeps happening. The connections that I’m making or remaking. The number of people I’ve unexpectedly discovered to be our people.
It turns out, there’s a lot more of them than we imagined. Or more than I imagined. Maybe you knew this all along. Maybe this is what you and Kylie are talking about when you discuss tier one people. I think it is.
I want to give you one example.
Do you remember how hard it was to find a logo? How much time we spent with graphics designers and how they tried so hard for us, but nothing ever seemed quite right.
So. No logo. No nothing.
And then, one of the cards we received on Saturday had our logo on it. It was hand drawn by someone you touched. She didn’t know it was our logo. Didn’t even know we had tried to find one. And yet, there it was. Obvious the moment I saw it. A gift so graciously offered, but one I would never have recognized unless you had given me this truth. The truth of letting it come it.
(I think you knew she was one of your people all along. I think she may have known it, too.)
I don’t know how much I’ve told you about the practice. I remember trying one day, but you weren’t feeling well, and I’m not sure how much of that conversation you recall. I’ll certainly tell you more as time goes on and as it comes into better focus, but we’ve put together a philosophy. It goes something like this:
We'll mostly sit with people where they are. In their joy. In their grief. In their confusion or despair. Or in their wild enthusiasm.
Wherever they are - helping them to treat themselves with compassion.
(…And then some other important, but way less important stuff.)
What is this really? Just a wordy way of saying that we hope to teach people to grant themselves a little grace, and to let love come in.
Thanks for teaching me that one. There are going to be days when I doubt. There are going to be moments that I feel your absence blow through me all over again, and tear the jagged edges wide open and raw and leave me breathless and unsure, and grasping for something to anchor me in the chaos. In the abyss.
But I’ll have this reminder, and I’ll know there’s hope. I’ll know better how to live in a world without you.
Well, just sort of without you as it turns out. After all, you’re:
“...in my eyes and in my smile and the way I laugh and the things I find funny, and you’re in my anger and my fear and my darkness. You’re here. You’re here. You’re here. Shining through.”
(By the way. You should check out the whole thing. It’s lovely, and it was written for you.)
More next week?
I miss you, sweet girl. And don’t forget, Flounders Hang in Temperate Waters.
You know who you are,